What Will President Obama Mean for India?

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Shuja Nawaz, the director of the Atlantic Council’s brand new South Asia Center, appeared on Indian television network NDTV’s 24 x 7 broadcast “The Big Fight” on the subject “What will President Obama mean for India?

Other participants included Amb. Frank Wisner, Indian fund raiser for Hillary Bal G. Das in New York and Congressman Jim McDermott. The host was NDTV’s CEO Vikram Chandra.

A Grand Opportunity for a Global President

Charles Dickens called Washington a “city of magnificent intentions.” When Barack Obama takes over on January 20th as the 44th President of the United States, he will need to translate his own lofty ideas into realities. What makes the challenge bigger for him is that he may also be carrying another title: the first globally-elected President of the United States. Unlike any other presidential election in US history, his nomination was favored by denizens of over 90 countries worldwide. All his supporters, here and abroad, expect him to transform the image and reality of the United States, in short order. While this is a daunting task, it also offers him a grand opportunity to make some bold decisions and set the United States and its partners on a fresh path, where an engaged and principled US foreign policy based on humanity and justice would be the rule.

Expectations are high and no where more than in the Muslim World that has seen the past decade marked by a threatened Clash of Civilizations between it and the West. That is also where the most dangerous shoals of foreign policy exist: Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Asia, particularly Pakistan, which may be his greatest nightmare.

President Obama will not have much time to tackle each and all of these regions of unrest before he runs out of the hope and goodwill that will support him in his early days in office. The economic detritus of the Bush Administration has made the transition complex and difficult. But certain principles that are already reflected in some of his public statements may help point to likely actions that will allow him to make some historic leaps and take his supporters and doubters both with him.

Here are some things he could in his first 100 days:

  • Restore faith in the U.S. justice system by shutting down secret jails in Bagram, Guantanamo, and all torture and rendition practices as well as sites in other countries;
  • Recognize that the Gaza conflict has two sides and that the U.S. needs to engage with both to stop the violence against innocent civilians and children; bring Arab support to bear on stopping Hamas’ attacks into Israel and use the U.S.’s own leverage aid and arms-supply over Israel to stop its invasion of Gaza so the search for a longer-term peace may resume;
  • Announce that the US will respect the results of overseas elections that are free and fair regardless of which party comes to power;
  • Open a dialog with Iran to resolve issues and thus help eliminate Iranian involvement in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza, while opening up the path to Iranian help in rebuilding Afghanistan and expanding its gas pipeline into Pakistan and India; Iran is the key to many locked doors in the greater Middle East and to the peaceful US exit from Iraq;
  • Engage and help the people of Pakistan directly to wrest control back from the militants that threaten the stability of that key country in South Asia and thus restore peace and stability to Afghanistan as well; do not favor any single party or person for short-term US gains;
  • Help India and Pakistan back to the peace table by opening up their borders to trade and people; draw the Diaspora Pakistani and Indian community into this process for cross-border joint investments that would allow both rival nations to benefit from trade and cultural exchanges and remove Kashmir as a cause of conflict over time; and
  • Let the Muslim World understand loud and clear that the United States has no designs against it and that it will practice what it preaches by not supporting dictators and autocrats against the freedom-seeking people of the Muslim World.

President Obama can make this statement more effective by choosing to deliver his major foreign policy speech abroad, preferably in the Muslim World…then see the wave of support carry him over the obstacles to these Grand Objectives.

Where would be a good venue for this event? How about the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan, so both Indian and Pakistani crowds can see and hear him? And let those metal gates that are shut by goose-stepping soldiers every evening remain open forever after that as a symbol of good neighborhood and out of respect for a brave new U.S. president who is unafraid to tackle the hardest tasks first.

This piece also appeared on The Huffington Post and on the Atlantic Council website www.acus.org, where the author is now Director, South Asia Center.

A Grand Opportunity for a Global President

Charles Dickens called Washington a “city of magnificent intentions.” When Barack Obama takes over on January 20th as the 44th President of the United States, he will need to translate his own lofty ideas into realities.

What makes the challenge bigger for him is that he may also be carrying another title: the first globally-elected President of the United States.

Unlike any other presidential election in US history, his nomination was favored by denizens of over 90 countries worldwide. All his supporters, here and abroad, expect him to transform the image and reality of the United States, in short order. While this is a daunting task, it also offers him a grand opportunity to make some bold decisions and set the United States and its partners on a fresh path, where an engaged and principled US foreign policy based on humanity and justice would be the rule.

Expectations are high and no where more than in the Muslim World that has seen the past decade marked by a threatened Clash of Civilizations between it and the West. That is also where the most dangerous shoals of foreign policy exist: Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Asia, particularly Pakistan, which may be his greatest nightmare.

President Obama will not have much time to tackle each and all of these regions of unrest before he runs out of the hope and goodwill that will support him in his early days in office. The economic detritus of the Bush Administration has made the transition complex and difficult. But certain principles that are already reflected in some of his public statements may help point to likely actions that will allow him to make some historic leaps and take his supporters and doubters both with him.

Here are some things he could in his first 100 days:

  • Restore faith in the U.S. justice system by shutting down secret jails in Bagram, Guantanamo, and all torture and rendition practices as well as sites in other countries;
  • Recognize that the Gaza conflict has two sides and that the U.S. needs to engage with both to stop the violence against innocent civilians and children; bring Arab support to bear on stopping Hamas’ attacks into Israel and use the U.S.’s own leverage aid and arms-supply over Israel to stop its invasion of Gaza so the search for a longer-term peace may resume;
  • Announce that the US will respect the results of overseas elections that are free and fair regardless of which party comes to power;
  • Open a dialog with Iran to resolve issues and thus help eliminate Iranian involvement in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza, while opening up the path to Iranian help in rebuilding Afghanistan and expanding its gas pipeline into Pakistan and India; Iran is the key to many locked doors in the greater Middle East and to the peaceful US exit from Iraq;
  • Engage and help the people of Pakistan directly to wrest control back from the militants that threaten the stability of that key country in South Asia and thus restore peace and stability to Afghanistan as well; do not favor any single party or person for short-term US gains;
  • Help India and Pakistan back to the peace table by opening up their borders to trade and people; draw the Diaspora Pakistani and Indian community into this process for cross-border joint investments that would allow both rival nations to benefit from trade and cultural exchanges and remove Kashmir as a cause of conflict over time; and
  • Let the Muslim World understand loud and clear that the United States has no designs against it and that it will practice what it preaches by not supporting dictators and autocrats against the freedom-seeking people of the Muslim World.

President Obama can make this statement more effective by choosing to deliver his major foreign policy speech abroad, preferably in the Muslim World…then see the wave of support carry him over the obstacles to these Grand Objectives.

Where would be a good venue for this event? How about the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan, so both Indian and Pakistani crowds can see and hear him? And let those metal gates that are shut by goose-stepping soldiers every evening remain open forever after that as a symbol of good neighborhood and out of respect for a brave new U.S. president who is unafraid to tackle the hardest tasks first.

Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (2008) and FATA: A Most Dangerous Place (2009). He is Director, South Asia Center at The Atlantic Council of the United States. 

Back to the future in Pakistan

As 2007 was lurching toward a messy end in Pakistan, a documentary film suddenly caught much attention inside the country and abroad, especially among the diaspora Pakistanis. Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan’s "Dinner with the President: A Nation’s Journey" tried to shine a light on Pakistan’s future by showing conflicting elements of Pakistani society. At the apex was President General Pervez Musharraf, who was wearing his uniform as Army Chief in addition to running the country from Army House in Rawalpindi. Enterprising Sumar managed to convince Musharraf’s handlers to allow her to film a dinner with him at Army House in Karachi (one of the many such homes that the Chief of Army Staff has at his disposal in major cities throughout the country.) Musharraf invited his mother and his wife to join him at the meal. (Surprisingly the wife’s contributions were almost entirely edited out.) This conversation was the thread that Sumar used to tie together the documentary. Today, as Pakistan, under a civilian government, continues to battle the vestiges of the Musharraf regime and new economic and political challenges, it may be worth taking a look back at that insightful film and what it teaches us about Pakistan.

Sadly, the dinner was the weakest link in an otherwise telling film about Pakistan. By focusing on Musharraf, Sumar and her Sri Lankan partner showed their leaning toward a professed “liberal” autocrat. The assumption that comes through is that Pakistan, with its vast gaps between the rich and the poor, and between the radical Muslims with little or no knowledge of Islam and the intellectual elite, with its confused ideologies and imprisoned in its comfortable drawings rooms, needs a strong central figure at the center to guide it into the future. Even a year later, Sathananthan was accusing Pakistani “liberals” of helping the “neo-colonialists” in removing Musharraf:

“Politically challenged Pakistani liberals — a motley crowd that includes members of human rights and civil liberties organisations, journalists, analysts, lawyers and assorted professionals — are utterly incapable of comprehending the geo-strategic context in which Musharraf manoeuvred to defend Pakistan’s interest. So they slandered him as an ‘American puppet’, alleging he caved in to US pressure and withdrew support to the Afghan Taliban regime in the wake of 9/11 although in fact he removed one excuse for the Bush Administration to ‘bomb Pakistan into stone age’, as a senior State Department official had threatened." ("The Great Game Game Continues", November 2008)

Notwithstanding that the story about bombing Pakistan into the “stone age” was a figment of Musharraf’s imagination and not based on his intelligence chief Lt. General Mahmud Ahmed’s actual report from Washington DC, the film portrays Musharraf as a sensitive liberal with good intentions. The questions lobbed at him were soft; his answers softer still. The dinner turns out to be a dud.

But Sumar comes into her element when she visits with a group of Pashtuns near the Afghan border and bravely challenges their antedilluvian views on Islam and the status of women in society. When confronted by a tough woman armed with potent arguments in favor of equality for women, their best option is to retreat. The most telling commentary on Musharraf’s Pakistan comes in a vignette in the film that shows a poor Sindhi family eating its spare supper on the dirt floor outside its make-shift home. All they have is a piece of flat bread, perhaps some onions and water. They invite the filmmaker to join them. Juxtaposed against the scenes from a comfortable dining room where Pakistani intellectuals rant against the regime or the beach party where obviously drunk young men and women cavort out of control and one plastered young man expresses admiration for Musharraf, the film manages to show the stark choices facing Pakistan, as its heads into an uncertain future.

Critics like Sathananthan may regret that Musharraf was shown the door by the people of Pakistan , and some even bemoan the new civilian government and how it came into power. But they fail to recognize that the only way out of Pakistan’s political morass is to allow the people’s voice to be heard, whether it is through the ballot or through film and other mass media. Musharraf may have facilitated the political return of the Pakistan Peoples Party by removing some of the legal obstructions in its path. But he did not favor the return of the Pakistan Muslim League. The Saudis facilitated that. Both parties won their votes against all odds in a referendum against Musharraf’s rule and on the failing economy.

Showing Pakistan a mirror through discussion and debate so it can see itself may help start a critical debate inside the country. Without such a debate, Pakistanis will lurch from one crisis to another. The chattering classes will be silenced by the cackle of AK-47s and the arguments carried by suicide bombers into the heart of the country.

“Dinner with the President” began that debate in 2008. We hope the team will return to Pakistan in 2009 to show where we are now headed. Next time around, one hopes that Sumar will concentrate on the underlying issues that she uncovered during her “Dinner with the President” and stay away from the drawing rooms and dining tables of the elite. On second thought, perhaps a useful starting point may well be another “Dinner with the President” this time in Islamabad, which was once described as lying (no pun intended) “18 miles outside Pakistan”. Then she should head into the real Pakistan of the poor and dispossessed, where Sumar is at her best. Changing the lives of those people is critical to the future of Pakistan.

This piece aso appeared on The Huffington Post.

Bhutto’s Pakistan, a Year On

Earlier this month, as I drove past the spot where Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on Murree Road near Liaquat Garden in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, I thought of how much had happened since that tragic evening. She had returned, against the advice of many friends, to a violent and fractious Pakistan because she felt that her presence was key to the restoration of democracy in her homeland. I knew that road well. Decades earlier I used to turn there on to College Road, on my way to the neighboring Gordon College. Many of Gordon College student demonstrations for democracy in 1968 crashed into the police barricades at that spot.

Those were Halcyon Days compared to what Pakistan is now going through. A year after her much-foretold death, Ms. Bhutto’s Pakistan is wracked by political turmoil and economic uncertainty. It is relying on the world to bail it out again. Yet the answers to its problems lie inside Pakistan. Unless Pakistan settles the wars within and coalesces around its political center, it faces a bleak future and risk of foreign intervention. This is the challenge facing its fledgling civilian government. The world must help it succeed.

Today, Pakistan is run by civilians. But the parliamentary system that had been hijacked by the military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, and converted into a presidential one remains unchanged. Power continues to flow not from the Prime Minister but from the President. Ms Bhutto’s signed compact (Charter of Democracy) with the other leading party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that called, among other things, for the complete restoration of the judiciary has been shredded. The coalition of her center-left Pakistan Peoples’ Party with Sharif’s center-right Pakistan Muslim League (N) is no more, partly as a result of the time bombs that General Musharraf planted when he brought the PPP into power under political deals that wiped clean all charges against its leadership and by removing the top layer of the judiciary in November 2007 for the second time in one year. The PPP fears that a restored judiciary under the former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary would overturn many of those deals creating chaos. Mr. Sharif refuses to compromise on this issue. The PML (N) controls the Punjab, Pakistan’s economically powerful province. The PPP has the center. This standoff threatens the political stability of the country.

President Asif Ali Zardari, who inherited the political mantle of his wife, Ms. Bhutto, has continued the Musharrafian alliance with the United States against the terrorists and militants that threaten Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan and increasingly are operating in the hinterland. He also continued the Musharraf policy of making peace overtures to neighboring India and offered even to forego a first nuclear strike in case of a conflict between the two rivals. But, despite his attempt at producing a consensus among the political parties in parliament against terrorism, most parties on the right wing of the political spectrum have started backing away from that stance. And the recent Mumbai terror attacks that are being linked to Pakistani militant groups have brought India and Pakistan to the edge of another conflict.

The economy is still in tatters. Distracted by political wrangling soon after the February 2008 elections, the new government failed to concentrate on the rapidly deteriorating economic situation until late in the year. The spike in global fuel and food prices added to its woes. Foreign exchange reserves have plummeted from a height of $16 billion to close to $4 billion. Food prices are up nearly 50 percent. Energy and water shortages persist. A program with the International Monetary Fund, once pronounced anathema by Mr. Zardari, is now in force. And Pakistan is holding its collective breath for the countries that it calls "Friends of Pakistan" to actually come forward with vast amounts of financial aid. Absent a robust and growth-oriented economic program and an improved security situation, such aid may not be forthcoming. These countries will likely wait for the IMF program to take root. Donors are also wary of dealing with a sprawling government of some 60 cabinet members, most of whom are eminently unqualified for their respective tasks, and represent parochial interests rather than a cohesive central policy.

On the security front, 2008 may prove to be as violent as 2007, when nearly 60 suicide bombings took place inside Pakistan, most against the armed forces. Adding to the volatile mix is the re-emergence in force of the Punjabi Sunni militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Lashkar-e-Tyaba that even threaten the state that once sponsored their help for the Kashmiri Mujahideen. The army, overstretched in the region bordering Afghanistan, cannot be deployed in a major operation inside Punjab. Without army action, these groups will continue to flourish. There is no police force worth the name that could be used in controlling these elements and de-weaponizing Pakistani society. More important, there is no public debate on what sort of society Pakistanis want to create over 61 years after becoming an independent state. Nor is there any sign of such a debate taking place in the near future.

Now, with India increasing the pressure on Pakistan to act against the militants that India alleges were behind the Mumbai attacks, and garnering international support for that cause, Pakistan faces the possibility of military action on its eastern frontier. If that happens, the Pakistan army will be thrust once more into the political vortex. Then, if the political center does not hold, history may well repeat itself and the army may be "asked" by the people to take charge once again. If that happens, Ms. Bhutto will have died in vain.

This piece appeared in The Washington Post Post Global on 26 December 2008